Mercy, Not Sacrifice

Our Lord was no stranger to difficult situations. The Pharisees and Sadducees would often present him with questions regarding various different aspects of the Old Law. Each time, our Lord answered with the utmost wisdom and absolute truth. Perhaps one of the most difficult (if not the most difficult) situations into which these enemies of righteousness placed our Lord is recorded for us in John 8:3-11. The scribes and Pharisees had brought a woman taken in adultery and demanded of Jesus that he judge her case and execute the penalty decreed under the Old Law. Lest we forget, the Old Law plainly stated that those who were caught in such circumstances were to be put to death (Leviticus 20:10). Jesus was literally being asked to judge as to whether or not someone should live or die and the scribes and Pharisees were planning on executing upon his advice. Jesus was in a difficult circumstance because on the one hand He was obligated to uphold the Old Law. He came not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). However, on the other hand, Jesus purpose, was not to condemn any man, but to offer mercy, pardon, forgiveness and salvation (John 3:17). The dilemma was real. How could Jesus fulfill the demands of the Old Law in this case, yet at the same time uphold the principles of mercy, pardon, and forgiveness?

The scribes and Pharisees had brought a woman taken in adultery. They had caught her in the very act. Evidently they had a witness or witnesses to this because they were not to make such accusations without at least two witnesses and someone was not to be put to death at the mouth of just one witness (Deuteronomy 17:6). They reminded Jesus that Moses commanded that she should be stoned. This was true provided they had the witnesses (Leviticus 20:10). And then they asked Jesus what He would do. The text also says that their true motives were to tempt Jesus so that they might be able to accuse him of wrongdoing or at least, poor judgment. At first, it appears that Jesus ignored them. Jesus did not wish to judge this case. There were judges who could hear such things, but Jesus was not one of them (Luke 12:14). So he was not properly the person to whom such matters should be brought. So the text says that he stooped down and wrote in the sand. The scribes and Pharisees, however, were insistent that He judge this case and they would not leave. So Jesus answered them as follows: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”

The statement that Jesus made was not designed to suggest (as many today insist) that no one ought to ever be judged for sin unless they have lived a sinless life. The statement actually has its roots in Deuteronomy 17:7. This passage states, “The hands of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people. So thou shalt put the evil away from among you.” Here was a catch that the scribes and Pharisees had failed to take into consideration. The witnesses, being the ones to cast the first stones, had to come forward, and a proper examination of their involvement in the whole affair could then be made. Two people rarely witness the sin of adultery unless they are somehow unwittingly privy to that knowledge (unlikely here since they were putting this case to Jesus as a “test”), or they are complicit in the whole affair. If they are complicit in the whole affair of adultery, then they must also be put to death for their participation in such a situation. Hence, Jesus wise answer neither removes His obligations to the Old Law, nor allows those who are guilty themselves to prosecute the offense without self-condemnation. So slowly, one by one, from the oldest to the last, the scribes and Pharisees leave the scene. This leaves only the woman and Jesus. Jesus, no longer having any witnesses to the event He mercifully refuses to condemn the woman to death, but equally as mercifully instructs her to commit no more sin.

We learn many great lessons from this text, but perhaps the greatest is this. Just because someone is guilty of sin doesn’t necessarily mean that we must apply the whole penalty to that sin. Herein is one of the great attributes of God. Psalm 103:8-13 states, “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy. He will not always chide: neither will he keep his anger for ever. He hath not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us. Like as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear him.” Personally, I am thankful that God doesn’t deal with me, as I know that I deserve. However, the lesson that we should learn from this is that neither should we deal with each other this way. It should be our great aim and desire to have as much mercy, compassion, and pity upon those who are involved in sin as much as it is to teach them the truth. Let us learn this great lesson from the life of Jesus for God desires mercy and not sacrifice (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 9:13; Matthew 12:7).

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